Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao
By Tom Finkelpearl
The number 7 line has a unique place in the development of New York City. Historically, it helped develop a borough, and now it helps define our image of diversity. The Interborough Rapid Transit system began transporting people under the East River to Queens in 1915, though the extension to Corona took another two years. The final stops in Flushing were finished in 1928 and what we now call the 7 train was complete. Many people have noted that the line has been intimately connected with New York's immigrants from the very beginning. Most of the workers who built the line were immigrants, and many of the people who settled in Queens from the time of the construction of the line were new Americans seeking a more affordable alternative to Manhattan.1 In the early and twentieth mid-century, the immigrants were Italians, Jews, Greeks, and Irish. Late in the century, particularly after U.S. immigration laws changed in the mid-1960's they were joined by a major influx of East and South Asians as well as Latinos. According to New York City Planning's "Newest New Yorkers" report, the population of Queens included 46.1% immigrants as of the last comprehensive count in the 2000 census.
In a Sports Illustrated interview in 1999 Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker famously derided the number 7 line. He said that he would retire rather than come and pitch for the New York Mets because he would have to ride the #7 to Shea Stadium. His homophobic, anti-immigrant rant was ignorant in many ways. On a factual basis, Rocker was wrong to depict the line as menacing. For the most part it is a well-traveled commuter train for people who live in Queens and work in Manhattan. But Rocker's ignorance was more profound. His words were spoken by a person who is simply not used to interacting in a hyper-diverse set of neighbors. Ironically, in a cascade of unintended consequences, Rocker's words could hardly have been better for the reputation of the 7 line. I was riding the train on a daily basis in 1999 just after his famous rant made it from the sports page to the mainstream news. It seemed that there was a television crew at every stop for a couple of weeks after the article came out, interviewing the passengers and community residents. From that time forward, the 7 train became a symbol for striving multicultural Queens. A year later, in 2000, the line was proclaimed a "National Millennium Trail" by the federal government, one of only 16 in the country. The 7 had become a celebrated national symbol, now dubbed the "International Express."
In 1999 the year Rocker derided the 7, like millions of new Americans before him, Taiwan-born Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao settled in Jackson Heights, about mid-way into Queens. He began commuting to Manhattan on the 7 line to complete his graduate studies and earn a living. Five years later, he began an ambitious project to document life along the subway line he knew so well, and Habitat 7 was born. But Liao's photographic series captures the energy of the place with a somewhat distanced view. While he depicts the crowds in some of his photographs, he does not linger on the single protagonist. Rather he asks us to look into the photograph, to see people in the context of the street rather than the street as a backdrop for the individual. The stories are in the details. Because Liao uses an 8" x 10" camera, the detail is so sharp that even shots from a distance capture the rich human detail of the environment.
I am often struck in either driving on the highway or riding the subway through Queens how the most obviously beautiful sections of the borough are hidden from view. Outsiders are guided through areas populated by warehouses and public housing, oblivious to the fact that four or five blocks away, there are tree-lined streets with perfectly manicured lawns. In general, Liao's photographs are richly textured depictions of settings that are not physically beautiful in a traditional sense. Liao finds rugged beauty in the engineering of the elevated subway, social beauty in the people who frequent the line, and creates traditional aesthetic beauty in his craft as a photographer.
For many viewers Liao's series will be an unfamiliar ride. But for those of us who have the chance to spend time in Queens, the scenes are familiar. Lacking a single center, a defining downtown, we see the 7 as the spine of Queens. In looking at the series I was struck with the question of whether the photographs would be more interesting for a person who never rides the 7 or one who is familiar with the route. I concluded that the insiders and outsiders simply see the photographs differently. As a longtime rider, I look past the architectural banality and cultural exoticism. Each photograph in the series exhibits a remarkable attention to detail.
A sweet public service announcement on WNYC radio earlier this year quoted two young women describing their move to Astoria, Queens. Their enthusiasm for their neighborhood was infectious, and they ended by saying together in unison, "Queens, the Borough of Dreams." As a Queens enthusiast, I loved the spot because it summed up so much about the place so concisely. Indeed it is not a paradise, but there is a tremendous amount of hope on its streets. In his book Blink,Malcolm Gladwell described recent research into the perceptions of race. While John Rocker's racism is more overt than most people's Gladwell discusses how the vast majority of us harbor prejudices that we do not recognize on a conscious level. In fact Gladwell discusses how certain psychological tests have consistently revealed to him his own internalized racism against African Americans - ironic, of course because he is half Black. But, Gladwell argues, our impressions of people are generated by our environment, and the best way to fight our subconscious racism is to change our experiences: "It requires that you change your life so that you are exposed to minorities on a regular basis and become comfortable with them and the best of their culture."2 At some level, I feel that the power of art can have the same sort of effect. By looking closely at Liao's photographs, by vicariously experiencing the feel of the 7 line, one can sense the everyday life of this unique ribbon of life through the city. It is through the combination of the everydayness of the scenes with the detail and beauty of the photographs that Liao draws us into this rich and saturated environment.
Jeff Liao: Habitat 7 is on view at HCP from March 8 - April 20, 2008. Extracts from the article "Queens: The Borough of Dreams" is published with permission from Nazraeli Press/Tom Finkelpearl. All rights reserved. For a fuller version, see Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao: Habitat 7 (Portland: Nazraeli Press, 2007).
1. The International Express: Around The World On The 7 Train: The Queens Tribune web site:www.queenstribune.com/anniversary2002/ internationalexpress.htm
2. Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York: Little Brown and
Company, 2005), 97.